I finally managed to get my brain in gear enough to read one of my many recently purchased books (it’s crazy, I’ve got a backlog of 30+ books with more incoming)… and it was really really good! The title is “The Question of Evil in Ancient Egypt” by Mpay Kemboly and I would certainly recommend it to anyone interested in the origin and nature of Apophis and the concept of evil/isfet. The findings weren’t what I was expecting at all, so much so that I feel half-obliged to give a ‘SPOILERS’ warning in case anybody wants to read the book themselves.
Kemboly starts out by giving an overview of several other Egyptologists’ thoughts in regards to Apophis and evil (including Hornung and Assman), which is very useful indeed because he then ends up disagreeing with pretty much every single one and pointing out the flaws in their arguments. One of the things this book really highlighted for me is the way Egyptologists can come to some quite dramatic conclusions based on only one or two lines of text, the readings of which are far from certain! It makes me feel a little betrayed almost as some of these camps of thought are very well established as “fact” when a lot of it is surprisingly tenuous supposition. In contrast, Kemboly sticks very closely to what the source material says on its own terms and within context, for which he certainly has my respect. If nothing else, this book is a wonderful collection of carefully transliterated and translated passages about creation, the birth of the gods, the history of evil, the nature of Apophis, etc. It is a very thorough examination from start to finish.
So here are the spoilers: Apophis and the concept of evil are NOT pre-existent in Nun, they do not come into existence alongside/inside/with Atum-Re, nor do they automatically appear as a counter-balance to Ma’at. Instead, both come into existence at the same time as/with Re’s children (gods and humans), after the created world had already been established. As such, both are also a part of that created world rather than being primordial.
No one is directly responsible for the coming into being of evil, nor is there any Devil-like source or scape-goat. It simply ‘is.’ It’s almost incidental (and certainly not a planned facet of creation.) Although gods and men alike are capable of manifesting evil through negative actions and deeds (such as plotting against the sun god), neither are inherently evil in nature. The impact of evil actions can likewise be combated by good ones and by upholding ma’at. All in all, the created world is be praised for being a really rather wonderful and well-provided place.
As for Apophis, the single creation myth that talks about his birth suggests he is an accidentally flawed creation of Re (coming either from some spittle or his umbilical cord depending on the reading of a particular line.) A very strong argument is made for Apophis belonging to the royal legitimacy cycle more than anything else, with his main motif being that of rebellion against solar kingship. He is the Rebel par excellence. In this context Re vs Apophis (cosmic level) mirrors Horus vs Seth (social level.) There’s also a Coffin Text that suggests that Apophis was seen as serving a function in the created world. Kemboly interprets it as, “This combat in which Re is always victorious and [Apophis] is always defeated contributes to the renewal of the sun god’s powers, and so it is essential to the preservation of the universe.” And also, “[This] incessant battle… forms the tension necessary for the functioning of the mechanics of the created world. Just as with Seth society allows a certain level of disorder necessary for its continual reformation, so with [Apophis] the universe tolerates a certain amount of cosmic disturbance as a necessary and constitutive part of its mechanics; a notion that modern astrophysics translates by the law of entropy.” Of course, none of this is to say that Apophis should be seen as any sort of sympathetic character. His undying intention is to stop the progress of the solar barque and overthrow Re, causing all of creation to collapse. He isn’t ‘playing the bad guy for the greater good.’ The idea that his constant defeat (and Re’s constant triumph) helps keep things in motion is a happy consequence.
What this all means, or at least what I took away from it as a kemetic, is that Apophis is somewhat less significant in the grander scheme of things than previously supposed. And surely that’s a good thing. The concept of evil not being at all innate to creation is equally uplifting. The only thing any of us really need to fight is our own capacity for committing evil.
Edit to add: Something else I took away from this book is a new way of conceptualizing Apophis. And that is as the dry sandbanks of a very low Nile river (and the subsequent famine and drought brought on from a poor flood.) Dry sandbanks are something quite closely associated with him actually, as one of his tactics is to swallow up the celestial waters and strand the solar barque on his sandbank. It’s just a really good visual and is actually part of the very first mention we have of Apophis (FIP, Ankhtifi’s tomb inscriptions.) “… everyone was dying on account of this sandbank of [Apophis].” So now I see him as this giant sandy snake, running through Egypt where the Nile ought to be.